Title: The Bear and the Nightingale
Author: Katherine Arden
Publication Date: January 10, 2017
Genre(s): Young Adult Fantasy, Historical Fiction, Folklore, Russian Folklore
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At the edge of the Russian wilderness, winter lasts most of the year and the snowdrifts grow taller than houses. But Vasilisa doesn’t mind–she spends the winter nights huddled around the embers of a fire with her beloved siblings, listening to her nurse’s fairy tales. Above all, she loves the chilling story of Frost, the blue-eyed winter demon, who appears in the frigid night to claim unwary souls. Wise Russians fear him, her nurse says, and honor the spirits of house and yard and forest that protect their homes from evil.
After Vasilisa’s mother dies, her father goes to Moscow and brings home a new wife. Fiercely devout, city-bred, Vasilisa’s new stepmother forbids her family from honoring the household spirits. The family acquiesces, but Vasilisa is frightened, sensing that more hinges upon their rituals than anyone knows.
And indeed, crops begin to fail, evil creatures of the forest creep nearer, and misfortune stalks the village. All the while, Vasilisa’s stepmother grows ever harsher in her determination to groom her rebellious stepdaughter for either marriage or confinement in a convent.
As danger circles, Vasilisa must defy even the people she loves and call on dangerous gifts she has long concealed–this, in order to protect her family from a threat that seems to have stepped from her nurse’s most frightening tales.
Gah, I wanted to love this book so much.
I’ve seen nothing but 4 and 5 star reviews from people I trust, but guys, I’m sorry, this one wasn’t for me.
I had a lot of trouble connecting with the story and it was a bit of a slog to get to.
Now, don’t get me wrong. There were some things that I enjoyed. I loved the battle between Christianity and “the old religion” and the fact that though many people in Vasya’s village have converted, they still leave offerings and believe the local tales.
“It is a cruel task, to frighten people in God’s name.”
I also liked the dogmatic fear that Konstantin insights on the town, believing that you can only teach religion through fear. I also loved the seemingly torn nature Konstantin had between his faith and feelings towards Vasya (I kind of picked up a Judge Frollo thing, that he was torn by faith and feeling).
Anna’s infatuation with Konstantin, both as a religious leader and a bit of a lust interest was super interesting as well. At first she likes having a religious leader to lean on and to protect her from the demons, but then develops these feelings (unsure if romantic, sexual, or just jealously) for him later on.
“If this is the last decision I can ever make, at least it is my decision. Let me go, Alyosha. I am not afraid.”
Though I think the slow paced plot really hindered my enjoyment. Instead of connecting with the story, I was just waiting for something to happen. I didn’t even feel like there was a real threat until like the last third of the book.
As for the actual, mythological threat, it was okay. I enjoyed the different demons and Vasya’s relationship with them. I also enjoyed that Vasya chooses her fate to help save others.
I think I’ve made it clear that despite anything I may have actually enjoyed, the pacing and disconnect I felt with the narrative completely ruined this. I never connected with this story or felt engrossed, and there were times I just didn’t care. I felt like this was required reading from school instead of this captivating look at folklore.
I can see why people like this one and I will still be reading the sequels, but I wish I liked this one more.